St. Michael Catholic Church

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'Frugal Innovation': StMCS Has Made the Most of Its Building for 80 Years

St. Michael Catholic School technology teacher Amy Huberty unearthed this snapshot showing the murals of downtown St. Michael and the shag carpet that lined the halls of the school as recently as 2001.

Note: This article appears in the October 2020 special BOLD FUTURE Campaign issue of the DISCIPLE newsletter, online now.

Jenny Haller has countless stories about St. Michael Catholic School (StMCS) from her 16 years as principal (2001-2004, 2007-2020), but one of the most memorable comes from 1999, when she and her husband Mark toured the building as prospective parents. They were following Principal Gail Rappé down a hallway, the walls of which were lined with shag carpet. A first-grader was at the drinking fountain. When he finished, he turned his dripping face to the wall and wiped it dry on the carpet.

When Haller became principal two years later, the shag carpet was one of the first things to go. She recruited an aspiring Eagle Scout and his friends to tear it out. She also relocated the teacher’s lounge to make way for a main office and reception area for parents and visitors. These initial updates were just the beginning of many years of continuous improvements.

When it opened in 1940, the building was a school and a community center, with a four-lane bowling alley and a gym that served as an auditorium and event hall. As the community and school continued to grow, a new wing of classrooms was added in 1962, and in 1972, the bowling alley made way for a new library.

“We have a rich history of Catholic education in St. Michael, and more than half of that history has taken place on this campus. Many memories have been made and I’ve heard oodles of stories from the elders in our community,” she says. “It’s home for so many of them. People visit and are amazed by how much life we have eked out of this building, but it’s also a tired home, and it’s bursting.”

Making Room

In order to accommodate growing enrollment, Haller continued her efforts to revive the school building in 2008, by transforming the bowling alley-turned-library into three classrooms, dividing the cafeteria to create a new library and moving the main office and entrance from County Road 19—where parking was no longer allowed—to the east side of the building.

“With each update we found new layers of need. The most surprising was the code updates required in the kitchen, for which we had not planned or budgeted.”

For the next year, the cooks made meals offsite in a licensed facility until the kitchen could be updated.

In 2014, two years after adding seventh and eighth grades, the school needed to be re-configured again to handle growing enrollment. This effort included the only new construction in all the updates: a hallway to connect the 1939 school to the 1958 convent. In addition to expanded office spaces and meeting rooms, the school gained a new, secured entry and additional classroom space in the school wing to accomodate a student body of 400 (up from 240 when Haller began).

“We’ve maximized the existing space by reconfiguring and thinking creatively,” Haller says. “Most of the demo work and much of the remodeling has been volunteer or volun-told labor. The 2008 renovation, for example, was quoted at $750,000. We did it for a third of that.”

There was the time they outfitted the new preschool building from a childcare center that was going out of business—loading up what they wanted and sending the rest with an auction company. Or the time they were turning a stub of hallway into a technology closet, and Haller told her lead volunteer that the adjoining classrooms could use sinks, as well.

“Good luck with that,” he said. “There may be water lines nearby, but a sink has to drain somewhere.”

“Well, I believe in miracles,” she replied. “Call me when you figure it out.”

A short while later he was shaking his head. “Look what we found under the subfloor,” he said.

It was a drainpipe.

“I think it was Gail Dorn at CSCOE (the Catholic Schools Center of Excellence) who coined the term frugal innovation,” Haller says. “I remember hearing her say that and thinking, ‘That’s exactly what we do!’”

Adapt and Overcome

StMCS’s innovation hasn’t been limited to renovating rooms. Assistant Principal Heidi Gallus has been at the school eight years now and is struck by her colleagues’ willingness to adapt to less-than-ideal conditions to continue the mission of Catholic education. “Our current library is half to a third of the size of a regular classroom, which means only half a class at most can visit at one time,” she says.

“We have math teachers for every level, but one of them has a former storage room for an office and rotates to whatever classroom is open each period in order to teach.”

Adding a Spanish room adjacent to the cafeteria works, except with social distancing and a smaller cafeteria, StMCS has five lunch periods between 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM. For those two hours, the noise level is challenging for Spanish classes. Pre-COVID, the gym was just big enough to accommodate Weekly Welcome and Worship and other all-school gatherings; with social distancing requirements, these gatherings happen outdoors or via Zoom—and with the after-school program occupying multiple indoor spaces, there is no good room for staff meetings.

Old-School Technology

In the past 30 years, every room has been equipped with an individual air conditioning unit, but the boiler often seems to be hot or cold, depending on where you are in the building. Technology is also an issue in older buildings—the entire school needed to be retrofitted with enough outlets to support computers, projectors and SMART Boards.

In 2001, Haller coaxed Amy Huberty to join the team as the librarian and the first technology teacher. The basement computer lab consisted of 12 blue, egg-shaped Macs, along with several sluggish IBM PCs. A collection of cereal-box CD-ROMs had been donated by school families as the technology curriculum.

“A computer in the staff lounge was the only one that could connect to the dial-up internet,” Huberty recalls. “When someone was going on the internet in the teacher’s lounge, the dial-up sound could be heard in computer class in the basement. … Each classroom had one IBM computer, which took hours to even start, so teachers didn’t use them.”

She began to improve the situation immediately. In 2002, StMCS purchased 25 laptops, used by students during computer class and available for staff to use after school. The generous support of the St. Michael Community Education Endowment Fund and CSCOE also helped expand the technology offerings.

“When interactive whiteboards began to grow in popularity for the classroom, StMCS purchased four,” Huberty says. “Teachers took turns using the SMART Board for a week and then passed it on. Today, we have SMART Boards in each regular classroom, along with the music, Spanish and technology rooms.”

Total Commitment

What motivates educators to invest so much effort and energy in an 80-year-old space? “It’s because of everybody’s complete commitment to Catholic education,” says Gallus. “It’s not about the building or having your own space. It’s about the mission—we need  space to do what we’re meant to do: educating the whole student and sharing our Catholic faith.”

Haller agrees. “I remember meeting with fifth- and sixth-grade families to discuss program expansion by adding seventh- and eighth-grade, and I was nervous. I was looking at our building and seeing all the deficits—but as I listened to the parents get so excited about keeping their students here, I was reminded that we’re family and we are mission-driven. We are a community living for Christ.”

Staff commitment shines through, says Haller, in their willingness to teach from a cart, swap rooms when the roof was leaking or work with students in a hallway among the wet, soppy boots in the middle of winter because there are no extra breakout rooms. Amidst an aging building, the staff still takes great care to keep workspaces clean and orderly and joyful, with artwork of students sprinkled throughout.

“Countless people have given so generously of their time and gifts in support of our mission on this campus for the past 80 years,” she says. “We have served families for generations and have accomplished so much. The future is brighter than ever for Catholic education—I look forward to seeing the bold next steps taken by our community for St. Michael Catholic School!”

For information on contributing to the BOLD FUTURE Campaign to expand our facilities and move our school to new facilities, visit our campaign webpage at stmcatholicchurch.org/boldfuture.